In Search of a Mentor
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, September 1997

I used to answer no when asked if I had a mentor. No single person either directly taught me or created photographs that I tried to emulate. My Aunt Marion came the closest. An avid naturalist who made thousands of images of flowers, plants, and trees, she also chronicled remote hikes and foreign travels in slide shows that put me to sleep. None of her photographs filled my heart with awe the way that the Yosemite images of Ansel Adams did in her personally signed collection of his books on her mantel.

Aunt Marion did not consider Ansel her mentor, though she had been on long Sierra Club pack trips with him and they both had homes in Carmel. One Christmas she gave me a Yosemite paperback personally inscribed to me by Ansel filled with technical information about each photograph. That convinced me that I never wanted to be a photographer. I didn't like the idea of having my love of the natural world compromised by carrying heavy equipment followed by days in a darkroom.

I felt similarly about technical rock climbing. I learned how at one of those Sierra Club camps and did moderate Yosemite climbs at sixteen, but got turned off of ever trying the bigger walls that would burden me down with ropes and hardware. Six more years of cameraless peak and crag bagging passed before I, too, pounded hundreds of pitons to ascend the sheer face of Half Dome in 1962.

On that climb, I took one unsatisfactory roll of snapshots with the mind set of using as little equipment and time as possible. I naively hoped for pictures that recorded what was important to me, like Aunt Marion's, but with the added emotional response of Ansel's work. To get that result, I realized I would need to compromise my ideals, as I had done on Half Dome. I wondered if it was possible to combine direct records of my personal experience with far more elusive visual metaphors of my inner responses while I hiked or climbed in the wilderness.

I began struggling (and still do today) to figure out how to communicate my most powerful visual experiences without diminishing them in advance because of an excess of photographic impedimenta. I was all too familiar with how a heavy pack for a 3-week journey or a 3-day climb muted the joy of walking through a flowered wilderness. And yet the outcome often seemed worth the price. Accomplishing a big-wall climb or executing a photograph that took tremendous forethought added deep personal meaning to my life, so long as I didn't take it to excess and lose sight of what fueled my passion for nature. It became ever more clear to me that my best work mirrored my own simple joy and certitude rather than the size of my accomplishment or film format. I reasoned that if the goal of nature photography was to record as much as possible of a scene with the finest resolution, publications would be filled with 360° panoramas shot on 24-inch roll film.

Early on, I was intrigued by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who captured "the decisive moment" in common scenes that would never repeat themselves from France to India. Though he carried only a single Leica, often with only a 50mm lens, his black-and-white images held a sense of clarity and immediacy at least equal to that of the large-format work of Ansel Adams.

Back then, black-and-white reigned supreme in both fine-art and nature photography. I saw color as all too important a part of my perceptual experience to delete, but only a few nature photographers seemed to use color in a natural and creative way. The first color nature photography that really impressed me was a lavishly reproduced Sierra Club Exhibit Format book by Eliot Porter in which color whispered extra meaning without dulling dramatic appeal.

When I was 24, my Aunt Marion gave me a Christmas present of a later, very different book in the Exhibit Format series. It had the same lavish reproduction that had been used for the works of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, but Everest: The West Ridge featured compelling color images by amateur 35mm photographers of the entire spectrum of experience of a Mount Everest expedition. Native people, natural scenes, camps, climbs, and comrades were all eloquently rendered.

I soon bought a tiny Kodak Instamatic 500 camera with a Schneider lens. This 1965 forerunner of the APS system rendered tack-sharp Kodachrome slides slightly smaller than 35mm. Making a living as a photographer barely crossed my mind as I set about recording what the natural world meant to me, like those members of the Everest expedition. Even they had day jobs.

When the fixed lens and film size compromises of the Kodak became too much for me to bear, I bought a Nikon, published some work, and began to visualize a future as a career photographer. When I saw Ernst Haas' 1971 book, The Creation, it firmed up my resolve to become a full-time free-lancer the following year. Like Ansel Adams, Ernst Haas had a musical background that had set him on a course of orchestrating great performances of ordered perceptions on film. Haas, however, had mastered the art of using unfiltered colors to create a sense of visual power in common scenes that often exceeded that in the Everest images I so admired. He, too, used 35mm instead of large-format.

Only after I came to know the limits of the possible as expressed by these other visual artists and had tested them by my own experimentation was I able to evoke the style of photography that had been inside of me all along. I could see my way clear toward a career in which making money from commercial assignments was less important a goal than having an integrated lifestyle in which the wholeness of knowing and communicating about the earth's wild places reigned supreme. I judged Ansel Adams' emerging immortal greatness as being at least as due to his breadth as a human being–teacher, technician, innovator, environmentalist–as to his images by themselves.

Ever since my 89-year-old mother broke into tears opening an issue of the National Geographic with my story about the John Muir Trail, I've answered yes, I did have mentors–phantom mentors who made a difference. The 1989 article included a spread of 1924 photographs of her journey along the trail with her late older sister. I had inherited Aunt Marion's photo collection and sent some of her pictures with a mention in my text on a whim. My mother looked up and said, "She got you started, Galen, didn't she?"

The two images of Evolution Lake beside the John Muir Trail that appear with this story link 64 years of outdoor photography, from hand-tinted monochrome to Fujichrome. I'm going back yet again this summer because my mentor made me do it.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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